Writing ... or Just Practicing?

Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer

  • Writing ... or Just Practicing?

    The Internet Of Letterboxes

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    It's currently fashionable here in England to castigate large companies for not voluntarily paying more tax that they are legally obliged to do. Amongst the so-called offenders is Amazon, who have grown a huge order management, warehousing, and distribution network throughout the UK. Probably because we seem to be one of the countries that has wholly embraced the concept of online purchasing.

    I'm a regular Amazon customer for a whole range of goods, and I ignore the pleas of those who demand a boycott on "tax avoidance" grounds. Basically I'm on the side of those who feel that if the Government thinks they aren't collecting enough tax from a huge employer who pays for large expanses of real estate and employs lots of people, when that company is following the rules, then they need to change the rules rather than just complaining.

    And as a regular customer, I finally gave in and signed up for the "Prime" service where deliveries are made by Amazon themselves (or some subcontracted organization). It wasn't that expensive when I joined, though I may baulk at renewing now that it's gone up dramatically in price because you get the "Instant Video" streaming service in with the package (I've had it for four months and only managed to watch the first two minutes of one film to see if it worked).

    But what does amaze me is the efficiency of the delivery service. In the past they used to say that online purchasing would never really catch on because people wouldn't be prepared to wait for goods to be delivered, or they would get lost or damaged in the post, or wouldn't look anything like the picture when they arrived (though you could say the same about most microwaved instant meals).

    I preordered the latest Stephen Booth book some while ago. I love his books because they are set in the Derbyshire Dales and Peaks, right here in our part of the country, and I know all the towns and places his characters visit. In fact they even came to a café in our local town in one book, visited the aquarium in Matlock Bath where we went last year, and drive along the roads that we regularly use. And his books are a good read as well, of course.

    But, straying back onto topic, the amazement that prompted this rambling post was that I got an email yesterday to say that the new book had been dispatched. Then another at 9:25 AM today saying "We're going to deliver your order today. If there's nobody in when we arrive we'll post through your letter box if possible, leave with an available neighbour or in your preferred safe-place, if you've previously provided us with those details." OK, that in itself is not so amazing. But at 2:15 PM I got another email saying "Your order, containing the item(s) listed below, has been posted through your letterbox." I went and looked, and they were right!

    Never mind cloud-connected thermostats, online fridges, and the Internet of Things. I've got someone who emails me to tell me when to look in my letterbox...

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    Bluetooth Made Me Un-picture My Contacts

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    Can software become more complicated and yet still be easy to use? It seems that, unfortunately in some cases, it can - and does so whether you like it or not. I just spent two hours trying to fix the Bluetooth connection between my wife's phone and her car, and discovered just how unfortunate it can be.

    From a standing start only a few years ago my wife has dived head first into our exciting, online, socially-connected world. It took me ages at first just to persuade her that she needed a mobile phone. Now she's fully immersed into the digital delights of tablets, smartphones, email, Facebook, YouTube, and more. And it all seems to merge into some amorphous mass of transient information delivery with a useful lifespan of twenty minutes or less.

    Except for one aspect: contact information. Maybe it's something to do with the combination of Google, Facebook, Android, and Exchange ActiveSync on her phone, but her contacts list grows magically by the day - and every entry is populated with a photo. And entries get magically linked together, with data from multiple sources, so that figuring out how to edit one becomes a nightmare. Even when you do edit it, the stuff you changed seems to get switched back again the next day.

    Most of the time this isn't a problem. She loves that her phone shows her friends' latest photo when they call her, and that the People list has pictures that get updated automatically. I have to admit that it's all very clever stuff. However, her car doesn't seem to agree. Like many modern vehicles it has a Bluetooth hands-free connection for the phone, allowing you to make and answer calls while your phone is in your pocket. It displays all her contact phone numbers, including lists of the top 10 and a search feature. And it's voice-activated as well, so there's no loss of road/eye contact.

    Or it was until it stopped working last week. Now the car just complains that it can't find any phones, and prompts to "start pairing". Being a logical kind of person, I began my fault diagnosis by pairing my phone (exactly the same brand and model) and it worked fine, though it took ages to connect. After a bit of investigation, it seemed that the connection was held up while it was downloading the contacts list. My phone has photos for some contacts (I cloned the list from my wife's some while back so that I had all our "vital numbers" in my phone), and also includes several entries that are auto-populated from our corporate SharePoint because the ActiveSync is to my Microsoft email account.

    Aha! I wonder if it's the photos that are the problem? So I fire up OWA to delete the photos from the contacts as an experiment. But you can't. There seems to be no way other than deleting the contact and recreating it. Next, try "real" Outlook 2013. Again, no option in the Edit pane to remove a photo from a contact. And then I notice the list of "sources" from which the information for each contact is collated. How clever, and how annoying. It was only after a search of the web that I found you have to choose one of the entries in the "View Source" list, where you can right-click the photo and select "Remove picture".

    After half an hour of this multi-step rigmarole I had a list of photo-less contacts (except for the corporate contacts that it refuses to remove). And, back in the car, the phone connected and populated the contacts list in less than 30 seconds. So obviously that's the problem. The car tries to load the photo-populated contacts list that's multi-megabytes in size, times out part way through, and decides that it can't connect to the phone.

    Of course, there's a pop-up dialog when you pair a phone that asks if you want to allow access to the contacts list on the phone. Instead of saying yes, I tried saying no - thinking it would solve the problem. But then the phone becomes pretty much unusable through the voice-activated or in-car menu interface because there's no numbers, although you can answer incoming calls and dial numbers that you can remember. So it seems that you need to make a choice between pretty smiling faces for your contacts or usability in your car.

    Though, according to a recent survey I saw in the newspaper, only one person in ten actually remembers more than one phone number these days because the phone does all the harvesting and remembering of numbers automatically. Which was followed by another report that one in seven people become "highly stressed" if their phone battery runs down, and "would find life almost impossible" if they lost their phone!

    I admit that I worry about losing all the contacts that my wife and I have collected on our phones over time, but I reckon we're reasonably well protected because ActiveSync keeps the lists in our email accounts up to date, and I consciously export the contacts list to a file on a regular basis in case both of our email providers decide we're persona non-grata at some point. But that's just my usual paranoia.

    Mind you, now I regularly have to suffer wife-generated complaints that our DECT house phones don't show the name of people when they call on the landline. If her mobile phone knows who the caller is, why doesn't the ordinary phone? Yes it has a contact list maintained by the base station that's available in all the handsets, and I did spend an evening entering the most commonly used numbers. But how do I justify to her that modern technology still has some wide disconnects, when a simple mobile phone can do everything by itself?

    Maybe it's time to switch over to IP Telephony in our house. I'm sure I've got an old Cisco router that does IPT in my collection of spare hardware. I wonder if it can do ActiveSync with an email contacts list...

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    Digitally Impecunious Pop Stars

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    It seems that being a pop star is no longer the route to guaranteed wealth. According to several reports I've been reading, stars such as Lily Allen earn peanuts from writing and releasing songs and albums. Should we be feeling sorry for them...?

    The trouble is, they say, that nobody actually buys music albums any more. The twenty highest selling entertainment products last year were dominated by video games and films, with only a couple of music albums making it into the list - and they were "mix tape" compilations. The best-selling albums now have sales measured in the very low (or less than) millions rather than the thirty-plus millions of past years.

    The reason, they say, is that listeners tend to buy just the songs they like, rather than whole albums. A bit like in my younger days when everyone rushed out to buy the latest singles (we called them "45s" in those distant days). Or now they just listen to them for free, or with a subscription to an online "radio" station or streaming service. And I can kind of verify this because my wife occasionally hears a new song she really likes and buys it for less than a pound online. Our music database in Media Player has dozens of entries for artist/album that contain only a single song.

    Maybe it was because my peak record buying days were in the periods we now call "Classic Rock" and "Prog Rock" that I was conditioned to buying a complete album. Often there was no single release from them, or you had to have the whole album to get the full experience and to "understand the concept and follow the story". I still occasionally find new music I like (there are bands out there creating great new rock and prog music). Inevitably I buy the physical CD, rip it onto our music server, and then pack the original away for safe keeping. I suppose it shows just how old-fashioned I am in both my musical taste and my approach to digital media.

    But getting back to the problem of impecunious pop stars, it seems (according to the articles I read) that the only way they can make money is by live performances, touring, and personal appearances. Simply agreeing to sit in the front row of a fashion show, or opening a supermarket, pays enough to keep you in champagne for a year. But the big money is in touring - I guess why the Rolling Stones, Status Quo, and a myriad other aging rock stars choose not to retire. And, of course, most stars have at least one range of clothes, perfumes, or other high-priced commodity to help scrape together a reasonable living.

    So it seems that, in our artificial digital world where almost nothing is real any more, our pop stars can't survive unless they are actually there in person as a real-time, physical entity. Who'd have thought that would happen...?

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    Recertified, Un-moused, and Port-holed

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    You can't believe just how fast a year goes by. It seems like only yesterday I was rebooting all the Hyper-V virtual machines because the server certificate for Hyper-V had expired. And now it's gone and done it again.

    The certificate is renewed automatically, but it disconnects the VMs when it does this. Which causes the mouse pointer to go off and hide, and you can see only a quarter of the screen in the VM connection afterwards. Trying to do all that UI stuff without a mouse is hard enough, but doing it at the same time as looking though a tiny porthole, where you can't see most of the screen, is even harder.

    However, rebooting all the VMs is something I try to avoid. OK, so I usually have to do it each month for patch Tuesday (or twice this month with the out-of-band update for Internet Explorer). A reboot all round is a pain because the virtual domain controller can't re-sync Active Directory until I boot up the cold-swap backup DC (one day I'll figure a way round having physical DCs). And the server that interfaces with my weather station and the solar panel inverter gets confused and has to reload all its readings.

    So, this year, I decided there must be a better (and quicker) way to regain control of my VMs. And there is. As described in http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2413735, you just save the VM and then restart it. I'm sure I've tried this before without success, but it worked this year. Perhaps one of the patch Tuesday updates to Hyper-V changed something inside.

    But maybe I should be upgrading to Server 2012 instead. I still have 2008 R2 on most VMs, and even one running Server 2003 (it was two until I got rid of ISA Server). According to a blog post I read this week I have only 450 days of support before Server 2003 reaches end-of-life. Maybe when I get a free week I can look forward to a holiday in the server cabinet.

    Or retire from work and give up computing instead...

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    Digital Trainspotting

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    I know that computers and digital electronics have almost completely taken over our world, but it was still an eye-opening experience to see just how much they have infiltrated one of my peripheral interests: model railways.

    Many years ago, when space and time permitted, I indulged physically in the world of railway modelling. It's almost mandatory for the real anoraks and ex-trainspotters who are generally into railways (the full-size ones). Even if it's only by joining a local society and/or visiting model railway shows. Though my early experience as an active modeller, some 30+ years ago, came to an end through a combination of moving house and Clive Sinclair (I bought a ZX80 and never had time for any other hobbies after that).

    At the time, in conjunction with an interest in electronics, I was attempting to replicate a section of the East Coast Main Line complete with fully operational signaling, block working, switching, track circuitry, etc.; an area of the real railway environment that has always fascinated me. But, though the full size railways were pretty much fully digitized and electrically powered even back then, the ability to replicate it in model form was severally hampered by the lack of suitable, easily-available hardware.

    Yet a trip over the holiday weekend to the model railway show at York (one of the primary shows of the year - and somewhere that, years ago, was an annual pilgrimage) revealed just how much has changed; and what it actually possible now for even the most ham-fisted railway geeks amongst us. Especially those with a parallel interest in computers.

    Most of the electrical control logic for my unfinished project was based on banks of miniature 9 volt relays, miles of wiring, a few integrated logic chips containing AND/OR gates, and big hot transformers to supply all the current it required. All of which could be easily hidden in a cupboard. But the visible items, in particular signals at 1:148 scale (2mm to the foot / N-gauge) required working lamps of around 1.5 mm diameter. In those pre-"cheap and hugely varied range of LED" days, the smallest was a 3 mm diameter "grain of wheat" bulb. Building a working 4-aspect colour light signal was a task well beyond my capabilities, and nothing even close was available commercially. Yet, now, you can buy ready-made 2mm scale colour light signals in a range of styles. Even though, it seems, 3-aspect is the maximum; but I also found cheap 1.5 mm diameter LEDs so it would be reasonably simple to build 4-aspect signals and other more esoteric combinations such as junction signals.

    Meantime, the availability of reliable 2mm scale locomotives and chassis was a real problem 30 years ago. A few German chassis were available at huge cost if you fancied building the superstructure yourself, or adapting a kit. But even with these high-quality items, the principle of powering them with a variable DC voltage meant realistic speed and slow running was not guaranteed. Now the trend is digital command through a constant 15 volt AC signal applied to miniature decoders in each loco. From what I saw, accurate and reliable running seems easily achievable even in 2mm scale locos measuring less than three inches in length.

    The digital command control systems allow control of anything that is electrically powered. Internal lighting for coaches and buildings, loco head and tail lights (that change automatically), signals, turnouts, road crossing barriers and gates (and warning lights), even the flickering glow from the firebox of steam locomotives. Plus the use of high-intensity white LEDs to replicate arc welding in a workshop that seems to be almost mandatory on many layouts now. And the hand-held controller is, of course, wireless these days - so you can wander about while driving.

    And one relatively new feature, driven by the command control systems, is digital sound. On many layouts, the locos sounded just like the real thing, with the engine note changing to match speed, the sound of air brakes, and a realistic tickover when stationary. On one sales stand I even discovered that you can program the sound chips with the actual type of the loco, and it emits sounds recorded from the real thing. Amazing.

    But it doesn't stop there. In the "olden days" we used to build track plan panels with embedded lights, just like the real thing, and populate these with the switches for turnouts and isolated sections that allow multiple locos to be used. With digital command control, isolated sections are no longer required and combinations of turnout settings can easily be set up in one action. And when you add in a computer, you can easily introduce additional logic features such as block working and proper locking of signals and turnouts.

    In fact, several of the layouts were completely controlled by a laptop computer that displays a clickable live track plan that controls everything. In some cases, automatically driving all the trains as well. Though I guess this just matches my continued surprise when I go to a social event where there's a disco and discover that there are no record decks or even CD players any more - the DJ just runs the whole thing from a laptop.

    I'm not sure we aren't heading for a time when railway modelling becomes a spectator hobby. OK, you still need to build it first, but there were some complete layouts for sale at the show. Perhaps in the future the younger generation will just order their model railway online, set it going in the spare bedroom, and spend the rest of the evening tweeting and facebooking their friends with status updates about the trains they've seen going past.

    Maybe trainspotting is about to see a whole new lease of life...

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    My Email's Gone Cloudy

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    For the past several months I've been fighting to resolve network connectivity problems, especially with the Office 2013 version of Outlook. And then, suddenly, this week all the problems went away. Without me doing anything!

    Those brave souls who subject their Monday morning coffee break to my rambling diatribes will no doubt recall some of the efforts I've made. Getting rid of ISA Server. Reorganizing my DNS infrastructure. Replacing my wireless access point. Upgrading the internal network to 1 GB switches. Replacing the load-balancing router. Upgrading both ISP connectivity packages. And generally fiddling with settings and options in Outlook.

    While all this has provided some dramatic improvement, especially in the areas of web browser responsiveness and removing the occasional failed connections, it made absolutely no difference to the way Outlook resolutely and randomly disconnected, spend minutes trying to synchronize with the mail server, and left sent messages in the Outbox for up to an hour before dispatching them.

    Wits end was becoming a regular destination during my working day, especially when waiting for an urgent email to arrive. Those conversations where someone says "I've just sent you an email..." became embarrassing "I'll call you back" events, and last-minute emails sent just before the team went home didn't get read until the next day. I was fast becoming an email pariah.

    Of course, I regularly phoned our tech support people to try and solve the problem, and they were generally helpful until I mentioned that it happened on all my computers, on Windows 7 and Windows 8, and so it probably wasn't a hardware or software issue - at which point the usual response was "It must be your network that's the problem." They assured me there were no issues with the mail server or the configuration of my mailbox. Maybe I should just move house, or go back to snail mail.

    Yet now, huge joy, it's working fine. No delays. No loss of connectivity. No more hourglass or warning triangle on the Outlook notification icon. Messages fly out before I even see them hit the Outbox, and incoming messages appear almost before they were sent. Why? Because this week I was upgraded from Exchange Server in our local datacenter to Office 365 Exchange Online running in Azure. So maybe not all of the problems were actually my fault?

    I wonder if I can send the IT department a bill for my network upgrades...

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    A Book By Any Other Name

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    So last week saw the sad demise of Bruce Robertson, the managing director of the UK-based Diagram organization that specializes in artwork and design for books and other publications. While I'm sure he'd most like to be remembered by the great work his company has done, the somewhat unfortunate fact is that he's probably best known for founding the Diagram Prize for the Oddest Title of the Year.

    I'll admit that I hadn't heard of this (or him) until I read his obituary in the newspaper. Not that I always read the obituaries, but I like to check if there are any interesting recently dead people (was it Phyllis Diller who said she always read the obituaries to make sure she was still alive?)

    And a concise history of the prize is (as you'd expect) on Wikipedia. Some of the less controversial titles include the famous first prize winner "Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice", the 1984 winner "The Book of Marmalade: Its Antecedents, Its History, and Its Role in the World Today", and the rather amazing "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It".

    Other more specialist titles include a guide to banishing fairies from your home called "Goblinproofing One's Chicken Coop" (I especially like the use of "one's" rather than "your"), the no doubt fascinating historical guide called "Highlights in the History of Concrete", and the technical treatise named "Unsolved Problems of Modern Theory of Lengthwise Rolling" (supposedly a vital technique in metalwork).

    What's illuminating about the prize is that the judges are urged not to read the books in case they discover that the title is actually meaningful and not odd at all. Probably the same applies with computer books, especially if you're not a computer geek. For example, on the first few pages of Amazon's computing books section I found "Analyzing Neural Time Series Data: Theory and Practice (Issues in Clinical and Cognitive Neuropsychology)", "Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation" (does that include cake?), and "Python for Data Analysis: Data Wrangling with Pandas, NumPy, and IPython" (probably a completely nonsensical title if you are more familiar with zoology than computing). I also came across "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware", and just had to break the no-reading rule to see what on earth wetware is. Turns out to mean your brain. And I thought it might be about underwater computing.

    And what about "iPad for the Older and Wiser"? You can't help but wonder if there is an associated guide called "iPad for the Younger and More Stupid"...

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    Infinity = 40

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    At last our phone company has managed to drag a strand of high-speed cable across the six miles from the exchange to the green box at the end of my garden. In a flash I've been transported from the "back of beyond" into the exciting world of the "digital now" (at least, that's what it says on the publicity blurb they sent me).

    According to the leaflet, the new service is called "Infinity" and is immediately available with speeds "up to eighty times faster than ADSL". Of course, you do have to take into account a few over-excitable marketing terms here. It's actually still ADSL, but closer to you than it was before. Also, the multiple increase in speed simply reflects how slow it was before (less than 2 MB in my area). And when I phoned and asked if "Infinity" was a description of the actual speed I could expect, I wasn't really surprised to discover that it's actually around 40 MB maximum. I'm wondering how long it will be before the Advertising Standards Agency people start to ask difficult questions.

    What they provide is "Fibre to the Cabinet" (FTTC), so you still have wet string between the cabinet and you (note that I refuse to call it "Fiber" on the grounds that it's buried under our green and pleasant English fields). And at the pointy end you get a modem that translates the signal into a PPPoE interconnection that any suitably-equipped router or hub can consume.

    I always said I'd upgrade my ADSL line when FTTC did arrive, and I was on the phone to a business salesperson at BT (the phone company) the same day as I got the letter. Obviously take-up is somewhat slow because I got a fitting date only a week ahead; maybe because I have a business service rather than a residential one. And within three days they'd delivered by post the hub/router, a box of cables, and a welcome pack. The modem itself, and hopefully the requisite installation skills, would be coming with the engineer.

    And everything did arrive on time, and worked. The engineer replaced the wall socket with a new one (or rather, one exactly the same as the old one but with an "Infinity" label), went off down the street to the cabinet and wiggled the wires for half an hour, plugged in the modem, and I was almost instantly cable-enabled. He also plugged in the hub/router they provided, and did a speed test to prove it would give 40 MB down and 10 MB up.

    But then we got to the bit where I asked him to configure the hub with wireless turned off because it lives inside the server cabinet next to a lot of other sensitive networking stuff. If you happened to read my wireless security diatribe a couple of week ago, you'll recall a mention of how Virgin (my other ISP) tells you that your new cable hub has wireless enabled, including for a free open "guest network" connection. But you can turn it all off.

    So you won't be surprised to hear that the BT hub has the same, but they don't tell you. When I originally placed the order, I'd been careful to verify with the sales guy that wireless could be completely disabled in their hub, and was told it could. What soon became clear is that you can turn off your own "primary" and "guest" networks, but you can't turn off the public open (and unsecured) "BT Wi-Fi" wireless network feature. There's absolutely no capability to configure it. It's on all the time, whether you agree to that or not.

    I suppose it would have been a good opportunity to experiment to see how the free open Wi-Fi system worked, whether it used the same IP address as "my" connection, and whether it actually could eat up all my bandwidth. As I still have the hub (BT might decide they want it back sometime), I guess that's a task for a rainy day when I run out of other jobs.

    Instead, as you'll see later, I simply tagged in a Netgear router that has an RJ45 Ethernet port for cable connections and can handle PPPoE. But that was only after some rather tortuous conversations with a guy at our local electronics store, and a search of the web for a wiring plan. All initiated by the fact that my existing ADSL modem/router can do both PPPoA (ordinary PPP over ADSL) and PPPoE (PPP over Ethernet). So, in theory, there's no reason that it can't be used with a PPPoE modem.

    Or so you'd think. The BT cable modem has an RJ45 Ethernet output socket, but the old ADSL modem has an RJ11 "telephone-style" input port. No problem - I can (according to Amazon and several other online stores) buy, or make up myself, an RJ45 to RJ11 interconnect cable. Though figuring the pin connections from the many different diagrams on the web looked less than simple. So I popped down to the local electronics store and asked if they had one. I have to say that I wasn't prepared for the half-hour spirited discussion that ensued, and I'm still not sure which parts were accurate.

    According to the expert man I talked with, after you switch to "Infinity" the ADSL port on your modem is redundant. You cannot use it at all, for anything. Therefore, you cannot buy an RJ45 to RJ11 connector - there is no such thing. Even if there was, it wouldn't work. Yet, according to BT, you can use your existing ADSL modem as long as it supports PPPoE, can expose a network username and password, and can be configured with an MTU of 1492. All of which my existing modem can.

    In fact, the load-balancing router on my network, next down the line from the modem, can do PPPoE. It has an Ethernet input port, and I confirmed that it worked fine plugged into the BT Infinity cable modem. I could have just used that setup, but I wanted a perimeter network (what we're no longer allowed to call a DMZ) with port forwarding to a web server, so I needed a separate hub/router between the cable modem and the load-balancing router.

    In the end I decided to replace the several-years old ADSL modem with one that has Gigabyte connections (not that I'm actually going to reach the limits of a 100 MB port), and where the firmware is a bit more up to date. And, of course, has an RJ45 Ethernet input port. But I also bought an RJ45 to RJ11 cable from Amazon - at some point I'm going to find out whether this would have worked. Maybe you already tried this, or can tell me whether it's a realistic option before I break something experimenting.

    Best of all, however, the purchase of a new modem/router means I have another ADSL router to add to my growing collection of spare ones...

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